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A visit to Ardbeg
In 2015 Ardbeg turned 200 years old, but just a few short years ago, it looked to all the world like the distillery’s time had come to an end. Saved from extinction by Glenmorangie plc in 1997, this famous Islay distillery has established itself as one of the most popular in the world, with bottles selling for extraordinary (some would say insane) prices on the secondary market.
Ardbeg perches on the island’s southern coast, along a stretch of road which is also home to Laphroaig and Lagavulin. When I visited the distillery in October, it was a typically miserable Islay day and I stepped out the car into the stinging rain already fantasising about the drams waiting to be sampled inside. First, however, some sustenance was required and I quickly made my way to the excellent ‘Old Kiln Cafe‘, only to find it completely full. Having stupidly not thought to book, a quick dash back to Port Ellen was required in order to take on some fuel before the tour and warehouse tasting that lay ahead.
The ArdBIG tour kicked off at 2pm and while the afternoon followed much the same running order as other distillery tours, it would be fair to say that tour guide Ronnie went a little more in-depth with his description of the tiny details that contribute towards the creation of this unique single malt. For such a well known brand, the distillery is surprisingly small, with an annual production capacity of just 1.1 million litres, placing it behind all on the island, except for little Kilchoman. This situation is about to change, however, with plans underway to construct a new still-house, complete with an additional pair of pot stills, thereby doubling the site’s capacity.
Following the tour, we decamped to the warehouse, where a series of exquisite cask samples awaited. At £40 a time, the ArdBIG tour is certainly not a cheap day out but sitting there in the gloomy warehouse, listening to the wind howl outside, a dram of Ardbeg that had been drawn from the cask that very morning, now swirling in my glass, I’d have to say it was worth it. Indeed, the afternoon was a highlight of my latest trip to this most famed whisky island.
Back at the shop, I was surprised to find a generous stock of Ardbeg Perpetuum on the shelves. This bottle was released to mark the distillery’s 200th anniversary at the Islay Festival in 2015. Unusually for a festival bottling, however, it was released in fairly large quantities, meaning it still retails at the distillery for the very reasonable price of £85.
Bottled at 48.4% abv, Perpetuum was created using whiskies ‘both young and old’, matured in both sherry and bourbon casks.
Smell: An attack of Smoke and Brine at first but settles down to reveal Creamy Vanilla and Barley Flour, Toffee, Lemon and Honey before the arrival of Charcoal and Ash brings us back to a typical Ardbeg.
Taste: Vanilla and Fresh Fruit, then Sherried Raisins, Orange and Spicy Peat Smoke that builds to an Inferno before fading to a slow, smouldering finish with Salty Oak and wisps of Smoke.
Thoughts: I was intrigued with this dram right from the first sip. It’s rich with Ardbeg DNA but there is an indefinable quality that simultaneously places it in its own category at the same time. £85 may not be cheap but it is a dram that will keep you interested over repeat visits, which for me makes it worth the price.
I must admit that I would have preferred a little more transparency with regards to the background information of this bottling, with very little detail on the label itself. A little digging will tell you it was created using ‘both old and new whiskies, matured in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks’ which to be honest, is just vague enough that it could apply to a thousand NAS bottlings from a hundred different distilleries. This of course is hardly an issue exclusive to Ardbeg and the supply of further details re: the makeup of a single malt could potentially prick the ears of the SWA but nonetheless, a little more data would have been welcome. That aside, Perpetuum is a fascinating dram that just about warrants its price tag and its relatively low bottling strength makes it dangerously drinkable for all its fire and brimstone.
There is, of course, one further challenge that Perpetuum faces and it is an issue shared with every other Ardbeg special release, it has to compete with arguably the strongest core range of any distillery. So good are the 10 year old, An Oa, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan bottlings that one almost wonders why anyone would buy anything else! If, like me, however, you have familiarised yourself with the range and are looking to try something else, Perpetuum is a good option, assuming of course that you can get to the distillery and snap a bottle up at its original asking price. If not, you will likely find it selling at two or three times the price on various whisky auction sites.